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Two weeks ago, at Douglass Street Music Collective in Gowanus, a group of young iconoclasts milled quietly about, drinking beer as the musician Josh Sinton sat on a handmade stage before them, producing whooshy, long tones on a contrabass clarinet. That same night, at Ibeam—a boxy, high-ceilinged space nearby—vocalist Fay Victor sang a winning selection of Herbie Nichols compositions to a crowd of 10 rapt listeners.
The music, in both cases, was weird and good and intriguing—a random sampling of Brooklyn's wide-open jazz and improvised music scene. Over the past five years or so, a constellation of musician-run jazz series and performance spaces has cropped up throughout Kings County, in far-flung neighborhoods like Ditmas Park, Gowanus, Prospect Heights, and South Slope. You'll see stuff in these spaces that you aren't likely to find across the East River, in Manhattan clubs like the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note.
"It's not that Manhattan is boring," the pianist James Carney explains via e-mail. "It's simply become so expensive that venues there tend to program less adventurous jazz and improvised music these days." (One notable exception is the Stone, John Zorn's East Village music lab.)
For that reason, among others, a tight-knit group of motivated Brooklyn jazz musicians have created their own artistic infrastructure, borne of frustration and necessity, DIY to the bone. It's a world in which gigs—always hard to come by—can be secured months in advance, where nascent ideas can be tested out and worked on and made better.
Carney runs the weekly Konceptions Music Series at Korzo in Park Slope, where, about a year and a half ago, you could have seen the brilliant alto saxophonist Tim Berne for a suggested donation of $10. Carney is one of a steadily growing number of musicians presenting improvised music in Brooklyn cafés and restaurants. There's Oscar Noriega's Palimpsestic Series at Barbès; the Intuit Concert Series at LARK Café on Church Avenue; Out of Your Head Brooklyn, which does first-time collaborations in the back room of Freddy's Bar on Fifth Avenue.
Will McEvoy, a bassist, is curating the 18-month-old Radio Zero series this month at Sycamore, a bar and flower shop in Ditmas Park. When asked if he ever plays jazz in Manhattan, he just laughs. "Not much. For the generation that's under 40, there's not much going on," he says. "The community is much stronger in Brooklyn."
So strong that a few musicians have been curating series in their homes. One of them is pianist Jesse Stacken, who intermittently runs what he calls the Beverly House Concert Series out of his living room in Ditmas Park. "You don't need to go to Manhattan," says Stacken. "It's actually rare for me to go there. Like, every so often, I'll get to play Cornelia Street, but I don't know, we're all out here in Brooklyn, and it's great to be able to walk somewhere in the neighborhood."
"I know how difficult it is to be in New York and not be able to get a gig," says trombonist Brian Drye, who five years ago opened Ibeam, part of a colony of music spaces that have popped up throughout the borough in recent years. "There was a time when it was really difficult for me to do the music I wanted to do, so this space provides an even playing ground for lots of different performers."
Douglass Street, a shared space run by a cohort of 15 musicians including Sinton, has been doing similar work for six years. The saxophonist Ohad Talmor runs the venue SEEDS out of his three-story home in Prospect Heights. He was raised in Switzerland, where, he says, artists can rely on a strong "cultural infrastructure," and many Europeans have passed through his performance space.
Another of the venues is ShapeShifter Lab, a big, soft-lit club in Gowanus. The newest addition to the roster, it's owned by Matthew Garrison, son of Jimmy Garrison, who played bass for John Coltrane. With Fortuna Sung, Garrison's quiet and savvy business partner, they've been putting on shows every night for almost a year now.
And if the Brooklyn jazz scene of today seems insular, that's not necessarily intentional. "To be honest, I mean, I reached out to Wynton," says Garrison, referring to Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He got no response. He'd hoped to get a collaboration going, to open a dialogue between the scene in Brooklyn and the institutions of JaLC.
But they're happy to go it alone. It's why the DIY ethic took hold in the first place. Anyway, Garrison says, there are long-term plans to expand ShapeShifter's DIY brand abroad, to Beijing, Dubai, London, and Berlin. "I think that if we're consistent with the way the music is presented and curated, and the artists are treated with the proper amount of respect, it's a model that can be reproduced," Garrison says. "It's a concept that can be reproduced."